The Fox Cycle: Climategate's Coda

Grist's David Roberts offers up today a post-mortem of the Climategate fiasco detailing the lessons from the manufactured scandal, which has just about fully collapsed under the weight of independent investigation. The vindication of the scientists involved is long overdue, but their reputations and the integrity of their discipline will not be easily cleansed of the stain of false accusation. As Roberts observes: “The story followed a depressingly familiar trajectory: hyped relentlessly by right-wing media, bullied into the mainstream press as he-said she-said, and later, long after the damage is done, revealed as utterly bereft of substance.”

I've written in the past about the Fox Cycle -- the mechanism by which storylines like Climategate are dragged up from the right-wing bog and adopted by the mainstream media -- and Climategate is perhaps the purest example of that phenomenon. Its genesis was an act of theft, its catalysis was based in utter falsehood and the exploitation of ignorance, and its demise was thorough and authoritative. Meanwhile, the right scored a huge victory -- all three network evening newscasts unquestioningly repeated the right-wing's talking points, helping to keelhaul the academics whose greatest sin was using imprecise language in their personal correspondences.

And the mainstream media are the ones who deserve our attention here. The right is too mired in their own pathology to alter their behavior -- as Roberts notes, “the more liberal elites reject it, the more [the right] entrenches itself.” So the onus is on the media to be gatekeepers, and to not be swayed by loud and repeated accusations of “liberal bias,” which have no more substance than the Climategate-like faux controversies and will be hurled regardless of how the media behave.

There are plenty of other bogus controversies out there that the right is desperately trying to push into the mainstream -- the New Black Panther case comes to mind -- and the experience of Climategate should serve as a warning for journalists who don't want to become an accessory to character assassination.